David Brooks, Flayed by Left and Right

The New York Times columnist talks about getting slammed on both sides

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Today, it wasn't clear who David Brooks had pissed off more: the liberals dismantling and re-constructing his New York Times op-ed, or conservatives, who are still too hurt by his initial support of Barack Obama to listen to his admission of guilt that the president duped him.

"One thing I've noticed is that columns in which you admit error generate more hostility than any other kind," writes Brooks in an e-mail to The Atlantic Wire.

The big splash Brooks made was venting his dismay with President Obama's decision to tack left on his $4.4 trillion deficit reduction plan and deliver a speech aimed at firing up liberals rather than engaging moderates and conservatives. "I’m a sap," Brooks wrote. "A specific kind of sap. I’m an Obama Sap." The column's main thrust is that Obama is departing from the strategy that got him elected—appealing to moderates and striving for a "centrist" pragmatism:

The White House has clearly decided that in a town of intransigent Republicans and mean ideologues, it has to be mean and intransigent too. The president was stung by the liberal charge that he was outmaneuvered during the debt-ceiling fight. So the White House has moved away from the Reasonable Man approach or the centrist Clinton approach.

It has gone back... to politics as usual... I was hoping the president would give a cynical nation something unconventional, but, as you know, I’m a sap.

On the left, The Washington Monthy's Steve Benen struck early: "The president’s willingness to ignore Brooks’ bad advice is heartening." Salon's Steve Kornacki was puzzled by Brooks's claim that "Obama is simply trying to appease an angry liberal base." "That's a total misreading," wrote Kornacki. "Is calling for higher taxes on the rich popular with the Democratic Party base? Sure. But what Brooks doesn't mention -- and may not even be aware of -- is that it's also popular with just about everyone else." At The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn wrote a lengthy spoof, borrowing the construction of Brooks's original column. Instead of the opener "I’m a sap, a specific kind of sap. I’m an Obama Sap" Cohn writes "I'm a sap, a specific kind of sap. I'm a David Brooks sap." And so on.

On the right, Brooks's previous columns, encouraging Obama to run for president and thinking that "he’ll be a very good president,” have been too grave an offense to forgive. Conservative blogger Robert Stacy McCain berated the Times columnist. "Here is why you’re a sap, Brooks: You looked at the long era of Republican ascendance (1981-2006) and decided that the cause of GOP policy failure was that Republicans were too conservative." Michelle Malkin hit harder. "The news that Brooks is an 'Obama sap' is news only to the other smarty pants and panting smarties ensconced at the the Fishwrap of Record. His ridiculous drool stains have been showing for years." The Left Coast Rebel blog was equally unsympathetic. "Yes, Davey, you're still a fool. But admitting that you have a problem doesn't seem to be helping much."

Brooks said he doesn't enjoy taking blows from both sides like this. "I certainly don't take any satisfaction from being criticized from either end," he said. "I've never really known people who enjoy getting attacked but there must be some combative types out there. I'm not one, for sure."

But he has a theory why this column sparked a little more fury than usual:

One thing I've noticed is that columns in which you admit error generate more hostility than any other kind. I did a series on what I should have known about the Iraq war and the response from the left was more vicious than at any other time, and I was making a few concessions to them.

Either they smell weakness and exploit it, or they feel more self-righteous than ever. In any case, the lesson is that from a public relations perspective, politicians are probably right in never admitting error in public.

So is it lonely in David Brooks Land?

I'd say in general it's more fun to be more comfortably ensconced in one of the two big ideological communities. But I still have the sense that a lot of people are coming from where I'm coming from; we're just not as well institutionalized.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.